Belfast Telegraph

From a tiny acorn our city has grown into modern giant

Belfast celebrates its 400th birthday this week. But there is so much more to its history than Titanic, says Prof Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly

Four hundred years ago this week, on April 27, 1613, a charter in the name of James I created the modern town of Belfast.

Initially, the new settlement was only one of several created to build up an urban network in Ulster and to provide reliable MPs for a forthcoming meeting of the Irish parliament.

In 1640, Belfast was a town of 400-500 people, as compared to 1,500 in Derry and 1,000 in nearby Bangor. Within a few decades, however, its exceptional potential had begun to be recognised.

Situated at the head of the natural corridor created by the River Lagan and at a natural crossing-point from Co Down into Co Antrim, it was the ideal outlet for the growing volume of agricultural produce and linen cloth being produced in its increasingly prosperous hinterland. By the 1720s, it was already Ireland's third-largest port.

The second half of the 18th century brought a new era of growth and prosperity. Trade across the Atlantic with the West Indies and North America continued to grow.

The construction, in 1785, of a large, new White Linen Hall (on the site of the present City Hall) confirmed that Belfast was now the undisputed capital of Ulster's expanding linen industry.

The first marquis of Donegall, who inherited the estate on which the town was built in 1761, sponsored a major programme of rebuilding and improvement.

New streets – Donegall Street, North Street, Castle Place and Donegall Place – substantially expanded the town centre. Almost all of the elegant town houses erected on these new showpiece streets are long gone, torn down by the Victorians in their restless urge to build newer and better.

But the Poor House on Clifton Street, erected by the voluntary subscription in 1774, is a reminder of the elegance and self-assurance of the lost Georgian town that once stood here.

At the same time that it grew in prosperity, Belfast became a social and cultural centre. It already had in the Belfast News Letter (1737), the first newspaper in Ulster. The Belfast Reading Society (1788) laid the foundations for the Linen Hall Library. Belfast Academy (1786) offered a grammar school education.

Economic growth and a lively overseas trade also meant that this was a town where the new ideas of the American and French Revolutions were debated and acted on.

It is now a surprise that Belfast was the original home of the United Irishmen, founded in 1791 to demand representative government and constitutional autonomy for Ireland.

Up to this point, Belfast was mainly a port and commercial centre. The first factories, using water or steam power for spinning, were established as early as the 1770s. What they produced, however, was cotton, an industry where Irish producers faced fierce competition from England and Scotland. Belfast's industrial future was secure only after 1826, when the technology became available to use the same machinery to spin the finer flax fibres used in linen.

By the 1840s, visitors to Belfast, seeing the forest of tall chimneys that ringed its outskirts, had begun to speak of it as Ireland's Manchester.

Its reputation as a dynamic industrial centre attracted talented immigrants. The Jaffe family, for example, moved from Hamburg in 1852 and later provided Belfast with its first Jewish lord mayor and one of its leading philanthropists, Sir Otto Jaffe (1846-1929).

Immigrants were also largely responsible for the rise of Belfast's other major industry. The Yorkshire-born Edward Harland and the German-born Gustav Wolff established their shipyard in 1858. From small beginnings, Harland and Wolff and the so-called 'wee yard', Workman Clark and Company, established in 1877, rose to worldwide prominence by the early-20th century.

What did industrialisation mean for the people of Belfast? Accounts from the 1830s and 1840s present a grim picture of long hours of work, cramped and unsanitary living conditions and a population repeatedly ravaged by epidemic disease.

Fifty years later much had changed. The construction of Royal Avenue in 1881, driven through what had been a crowded neighbourhood of narrow residential streets, completed the creation of the modern city.

Belfast was still a centre of world-class industry. But it was now also a place of consumption and sociability, where trains and trams carried people from the new residential suburbs to the department stores, music halls, restaurants and public houses of a brightly lit and bustling city-centre. This new Belfast of the late-19th and early-20th century, the town that built the Titanic, is the one that is remembered today.

By contrast, King James's charter seems very far away. To remember that longer history, however, is to recognise that the triumphs of the Victorian and Edwardian city rested on much older foundations. It is offers a new perspective on the future.

When we recall the very different Belfasts that have existed – from the small Plantation settlement of the 1630s to the emerging port that constructed the Long Bridge and the elegant Georgian social centre in which people toasted the successes of American and French radicalism – we are reminded that this is not a place in which history is condemned endlessly to repeat itself.

On the contrary, it is a place that has repeatedly changed in response to new circumstances. In thinking about where Belfast has come from, we are also encouraged to think about where it might be able to go.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph